Currently she is performing Off-Broadway in the New York premiere of "The Pretty Trap," a little-known early one-act version of "The Glass Menagerie." Houghton plays Amanda, who, in this lighthearted incarnation, is an intrusive pest of a mother but ultimately a rather genial soul. The actor is clearly having the time of her life interpreting Amanda through an unexpected lens. But then, so much of Houghton's life and career has been unexpected.
1. Her legendary aunt helped—but not as much as we might think.
Houghton says she had little contact, short of holidays, with Hepburn. In part, the obstacle was proximity—or, more precisely, lack thereof. Houghton was growing up in Connecticut while her aunt was based on the West Coast. Aunt Kate was glamorous and fun, but in a family of eccentrics she was by no means the most interesting, Houghton says: "I only had a vague idea of who she was. I had only seen a few of her movies. It was way before the era of TCM."
At Sarah Lawrence College, Houghton majored in philosophy with an eye toward an academic career. But in her junior year, she decided to give summer stock a shot and was hooked. She proceeded to land roles in theater, including her Broadway debut in "A Very Rich Woman," and a few film and TV parts. Clearly, everyone in the industry knew who her aunt was. But if directors were predisposed to cast (or not cast) her because of her heritage, it was never made obvious, she says.
Houghton auditioned for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," but she has little doubt that her aunt was influential in her getting cast. "Working with my aunt on that film was difficult and complex," she says. "It was an exceedingly hard time for her. Spencer was dying, and she was like a tinderbox. It was a fascinating experience for me but not easy. Spencer was darling, supportive, and protective. He had flaws, but he was wonderful to me. So was Sidney, who was kind, sweet, and available. He was like a big brother."
Houghton likens the film to an "event": the stars, their lifelong relationships, and the movie's emotionally charged topic. Her role was rather one-dimensional, she concedes. Still, she had the opportunity to observe great actors at work, especially Tracy, who had mastered the art of revealing all thought and feeling through his eyes, she says. "Even in his silent films, it was all there with no mugging."
2. She wrote plays to give herself roles.
Houghton is also a writer and, like many actors, began by scripting pieces for herself. Following "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," she was typecast as the woman in interracial relationships. But it was not simply the typecasting that put her off; the material was so much inferior to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." "I turned down these projects and returned to the theater," she says. "It was fate. I went on to play Hedda and Nora and Nina and Kate."
But as she aged, she found fewer opportunities on the stage as well. To gracefully transition from playing ingénues to more mature roles, she wrote a solo show for herself, "To Heaven in a Swing," detailing Louisa May Alcott's life with her famous Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott. Doors in acting opened again, and, equally important, Houghton discovered the joy in writing. Many more plays followed, all of which were produced, Off-Broadway and regionally. Her play "Buddha" was published in "The Best Short Plays of 1988–1989."
She is currently working on the book and lyrics for a new musical, "Bookends," loosely inspired by the lives of renowned rare-book dealers Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. Houghton met the colorful pair when she was researching Alcott. "Bookends" has been a work in progress for many years, though Houghton recently signed on with a new composer, whom she does not wish to identify short of saying he is employed as a composer by major film studios. "Collaboration is extremely difficult," she says. "I can't afford to pay a composer. The composer has to be doing this for love."
Houghton hopes to see the show produced Off-Broadway or regionally and insists she'll have a hands-on role in the casting. "Though Madeleine and Leona are in their 90s, I feel they have to be played by younger women," she says. "They need a lot of energy. They also need to be smart and funny. But they don't have to be great singers. They can talk the songs like Rex Harrison. The younger actors in the piece will have to be real singers."
3. She tackled 'Pretty Trap' to originate a Williams role.
Though Houghton has appeared before in Tennessee Williams plays, including two shots as Laura in "The Glass Menagerie," she had never originated a Williams role. That drew her to performing in "The Pretty Trap," she says. She also much prefers this Amanda to the one in the legendary play, whom she views as a tad too nostalgic as she endlessly recalls her gentlemen callers of the past. By contrast, Houghton says, in "The Pretty Trap" Amanda is earthy, courageous, and devoid of self-pity. She is a pragmatist very much concerned with her children's future. Although Amanda doesn't anticipate much success for either, she wants everyone to be happy, Houghton points out. "And I love the comedy."
Still, Houghton faces very substantial challenges in this piece, not least making the transitions real and not allowing Amanda to emotionally spiral out of control. "There are moments she teeters and is just about to fall off, but she always pulls herself back," says the actor. Like any great writer, Williams is complex and requires the actor "to dig and dig and dig," she says. "You have to find the different levels, and if you're not doing that, you're not doing him justice. A major challenge in Williams is that his characters are not consistent, which makes them great parts to play. But that really forces you to work. We had eight days of rehearsal. I reread the script eight times, wondering, What is she thinking? What is happening? My mind changed from day to day."
Houghton admits she probably couldn't have done this role as a younger woman. Playing Amanda requires maturity and having had the "joy and agony of launching a young person," she says. Curious about which of the two Amandas is closer to the playwright's mother, on whom the character is based, Houghton contacted an old friend who knew Williams' mother. "She said Amanda in 'The Pretty Trap' was more like the original."
4. She has no career regrets.
Houghton doesn't know if she'd do anything differently in her career if she had it to do over. She says she's had a good time and been lucky in the people she has worked with. Still, she's not sure she'd be acting if she were starting out today, mostly because there are so many more people entering the field and the odds of getting noticed are that much longer.
Nevertheless, she believes that actors can still have viable careers in theater. "In film and TV, you need a gimmick, a recognizable persona," she says. "Once that happens, you'll get stuck playing it. You'll have fame and money, but at a cost. You won't get to play Lady Macbeth.
"My advice to young actors is to know what you want and to do it," she adds. "Know what kind of actor you want to be, and then go for it. If you have a unique persona, go to Hollywood. If you want to act, do that and be poor your whole life." She has no regrets.
"The Pretty Trap" is playing through Aug. 21 at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tickets: (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.